The advent of equal employment opportunity (EEO) laws and affirmative action programs created new employment opportunities for members of protected groups that had previously been victimized by employment discrimination. The demographic mix within the twenty-first century workplace has consequently become much more diverse because many workers now entering the workforce are neither white, male, nor English speaking. People of color continue to increase their shares of the labor force. The rates of growth for these groups are projected to be faster than the rate for whites. Whereas the White non-Hispanics are projected to continue to decline as a percentage of the labor force, Hispanics are predicted to be the second largest group in 2025, accounting for 17 percent of the total labor force. Furthermore, as of 2000, Hispanics have a larger share of the market than African Americans, 13 percent versus 12.7 percent. The share of African Americans in the labor force is expected to increase by only 1.8 percent during the same time period. Asians and other people of color would account for approximately 8 percent of the labor force in 2025. Hispanics and Asians, therefore, will continue to be the two fastest growing groups.
The workforce is also becoming older and is experiencing a dramatic increase in the number of dual-income families (many of whom have young children), single-parent families, and families facing the demands of elder care. The projected labor market will continue to be significantly impacted by the aging of the baby-boom generation.
In the past, organizations ignored the impact that diversity had on the attitudes and behavior of employees. However, 25 years of political, social, and legal change brought new groups of employees into the work-place. At first, organizations attempted to handle these new groups through assimilation. People were expected to fit in. Equal treatment at the workplace meant the same treatment for each employee; individual differences were ignored. Consequently, assimilation often resulted in pressure to conform, exclusion and isolation, and reinforcement of the dominant group values. The problem became compounded as the number of diverse groups within the organization increased and the number of white males declined.
The failure to deal effectively with the diversity issue can hinder competitive advantage. For instance, firms choosing to do business as usual have been plagued with a high turnover among nontraditional employees, low morale within the organization, underutilization of employee skills, numerous intergroup conflicts, low productivity, and an inability to attract new workers. On the other hand, if diversity is dealt with effectively, competitive advantage can be enhanced. For instance, companies that value diversity can attract a larger and better pool of applicants than companies which limit themselves to a traditional workforce.
Accommodating the needs of the diverse work-force is more important to organizations now than ever before. When properly managed, such cultural diversity can represent a key strategic advantage. Diversity in age, gender, race, and viewpoint can offer organizations a number of benefits including additional knowledge, creative ideas and insights to aid in problem solving, enhanced product positioning, better development of strategic plans and objectives, and fresh opinions. These diverse workers can bring original ideas and approaches to the workplace that can help a firm target its products and services to a marketplace that is becoming more and more diverse. This adds economic importance to the issue of diversity since the combined African-American, Hispanic-American and Asian-American buying power is more than $750 billion dollars.
Although minorities have been entering the workforce in record numbers, their quests to reach the top of the corporate ladder have been thwarted. Many have topped out at entry- or mid-level management positions. Consider the following statistics:
Minorities have failed to reach the highest levels of management partly because many have only recently entered the managerial ranks; it takes time to climb the corporate ladder. However, this explanation does not account for the magnitude of the problem. For years minorities have faced invisible, subtle, yet very real institutional barriers to promotions into higher level executive positions. The belief that minority groups reach organizational plateaus consisting of artificial barriers that derail them from senior management opportunities has been alternately termed "the glass ceiling," or "the brick wall." These barriers found in the structure of many organizations have often stymied the advancement of these select employee groups.
How can the glass ceilings be cracked or the brick walls broken down? Effective diversity training that helps decision-makers overcome their biases would certainly help. But diversity training, by itself, is not enough, and diversity management must not be confused with affirmative action. The Society for Human Resource Management recommends the following components for a successful diversity initiative:
Dealing with diversity is a continuing process that enhances an organization's ability to adapt and capitalize on today's increasingly complex world and global marketplace. A well-managed diverse workforce can give your company the competitive advantage necessary to compete in a global economy.
Patricia A. Lanier
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